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Enhance Your Brain

14 Jan


Humans are fallible: we don’t always act rationally. This isn’t exactly an enlightening statement. But we don’t usually extend this thinking to ourselves to realize when we are committing errors in reasoning. Nor do we take the time to examine where the mistakes in reasoning were made by others, rather we just conclude they are stupid.

This can range from huge self-identity beliefs like not believing in global warming. Or small things that might be irrational like paying for someone to wash your car, but not to clean your house.

It would be well worth our effort to improve our understanding of what underlies these errors of reasoning. We would make less mistakes ourselves, have more empathy for people with differing views, and have insight into their underlying beliefs that could potentially be used to persuade them.

I believe a limited cognitive reasoning vocabulary might be holding us back. Most cognitive biases make sense when you hear them explained. For example, “Bulverism – dismissing a claim on the basis of how the opponent got there, rather than a reasoned rebuttal” (source). The concept itself isn’t advanced, you get it. But if you don’t have a word or short phrase for that concept, it will hurt your ability to quickly identify it.

Somewhat Made Up Analogy Time

Let’s rewind a few thousand years to a time when our number system wasn’t yet invented. Before base 10 with independent digits in each place (1s place, 10s place, 100s place, etc.) with the concept of zero. Hard to fathom, but it really existed.

The number system largely relied on counting and they probably had a word for each individual number, not just digits. Since people have 20 fingers and toes, I would bet every language had a different word to count at least up to 20 (but 7 and 17 weren’t related words). And they probably didn’t really have much need for anything beyond that for a long time. Eventually things became more sophisticated, with an actual monetary system and even some division of labor beyond small tribes.

I’m sure they could understand large numbers just fine, but without much precision. Perhaps they had a way of estimating large numbers – each sheep is represented by a grain of rice, with my sheep numbering a fistful of rice. Imagine needing to do that inaccurate translation in your mind every time you encountered a number beyond 20. Would it slow you down? Would it be less accurate?

Armed with a new conceptual framework and vocabulary, you can improve your understanding. If someone says they have 450 sheep, I know exactly how much that is. Instantly and accurately.

Tying it Back to Cognitive Reasoning

If you have definitions in place for the various errors in reasoning, it will take less effort to identify when they happen, you will be more accurate, and have more success explaining it to others. Skeptics will be able to explain why they disagree. Gullibles will have some tools to realize when they are being led astray.

Even though we aren’t taught this, it is well worth our time to learn it on our own. Here are a couple links I am starting with:


On My Return to the World of Carnivores

27 Oct


The passengers in the back seat were nodding off. 2 hours into our drive to Tahoe, the excitement had worn off and the sleepiness of a late Friday evening had set in. I was in the front seat with my mind still running, unable or unwilling to doze off. Then the bomb dropped.

So… I’m going to be vegan.
              -Brian Skinner

This was the scene 7 years ago when I first admitted to my closest friends I was getting out of the meat game. It awoke the whole car instantly. Shock slowly gave way to confusion, which led to the first of my many forthcoming discussions about meat.

2 months as a vegan, 7 years as a vegetarian, and now it is officially over. Before getting into my decision to give it up, why did I start in the first place? There are so many factors: environmental, personal health, disgusting factory farming, antibiotics, the list goes on. Any one of these should be reason enough, but in combination it should be overwhelmingly obvious.

However, one powerful reason is more effective than 3 powerful reasons and 5 pretty good reasons – if all the top reasons are equal, pick one that is most equal to focus on. For me this is the long-term personal health benefits by avoiding the daily poison that is the factory farmed meat America consumes.

I am proud to have bucked the norm and consciously developed a habit that provides lasting benefits to myself and the world. But 7 years is a long time, maybe it is time to examine the results and see if there are ways to improve.

The first 5 years of being a vegetarian I was incredibly healthy. More energy, less fat, just 2 common colds the whole time. The last 2 years have been disappointing on this front. Random minor health issues including semi-frequent colds. Weight creeping up 4 pounds a year. Less energy despite plenty of sleep, less stress, more exercise, and happiness at an all time high.

This might be normal for Americans, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept it in my life. Instead, what changes can be made?

I concede that some meat is healthy. The health benefits of being a vegetarian come from avoiding the 99% of US meat that is factory farmed. But it is extremely hard to make the decision every meal “is this healthy enough?” I don’t have infinite willpower. Without going 100% vegetarian I would surely find myself in situations where I would backslide into poor decisions. “There isn’t another vegetarian meal on this whole airplane, guess I don’t have a choice and will have to go with the chicken meal…” or “Chipotle advertises that their meat is naturally raised, it is probably good enough…” or “well I’m hungry and this place only doesn’t have anything vegetarian on the menu…”

Instead I set rule to avoid all meat. Until now. The new rule is vegetarian out in the chaotic world and carnivore at home where I have 100% control.

Photo: poppy

The World’s Next Big Problem?

23 Oct


The world has some big problems. We have shown we aren’t very adept at scrambling to deal with crises once we’ve reached the point of no return (see global warming), so maybe we should get a head start on the next disaster?

I recently read an interview of a doctor that says we’ve reached the end of antibiotics. There are bacteria that are resistant to all antibiotics known to man. This is bad.

Every time bacteria is exposed to an antibiotic, there is the chance that it will become resistant to it. When you have another antibiotic to try (there are thousands), this isn’t horrible, just try the next one. But we’ve now reached the end of the line where some “super-bugs” have shown resistance to every antibiotic humans have discovered.

The reason I got to thinking about this is the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers locker room was cleaned by a hazmat crew after their game this week. Why? Several of their players have had MRSA, which is a highly resistant bacteria, and they don’t want it spreading to anyone else.

Typically this antibiotics problem is limited to hospitals. Someone gets a nasty wound and bacteria climbs on in. In the last 50 years with antibiotics, people rarely die from this. We could simply kill the bacteria with antibiotics. This opened up a world of new possibilities, everything from organ transplants, chemotherapy, and more. Basically any treatment that weakens your immune system is less of a concern when have antibiotics to treat infections.

Now we are seeing bacteria resistant to all antibiotics known to man. We are also seeing these nasty bacteria away from hospitals. (Apparently these bacteria are football fans just like the rest of us. They probably have a fantasy team that benefited by keeping a few Buccaneers players out of games.) But we are still in the early stages, no need to get all worked up yet. But what happens when there are more-and-more super-bugs out there? What happens when going to the hospital is too dangerous? Should we start thinking about this now?

Let’s turn to solving the problem. First, we need to slow down the creation of these super-bacteria by using less antibiotics. In the meantime, we also need to create some new antibiotics we can use.

Creating new antibiotics

According to the interview linked above, the low hanging fruits have been discovered. It has become more difficult and expensive to discover new antibiotics. It doesn’t make sense financially for the drug companies to spend time working on this. Antibiotics sales bring in a pittance and there is too much money to be made by continuously selling you a drug that lowers your blood pressure. We need to fix these incentives or ramp up government funded efforts.

Using less antibiotics

We need to seriously cut back on antibiotic use. Less preventative use as well as saving certain strains for our last resort. I don’t know much about how they are used in humans, but the obvious place to cut back is for factory farmed animals. 30 millions pounds of antibiotics are used on US animals each year, compared to 8 million pounds for humans. Supply and demand at its worst – with so many carnivores demanding meat, this is one of the consequences. Here’s a short excerpt from the interview:

I’d like to ask you about the use of antibiotics for farm animals. I know a large share of the antibiotics produced in this country is used in agriculture. Do you see problems there? Is that generating resistance as well as the use for humans?

We know that the use of antibiotics in any setting, and especially the overuse of antibiotics in any setting, is an issue that will generate resistance, that will lead to problems of resistance. That applies as much for human use as it does for animal use.

Do you think that if they’re used for animals, there’s actually a pathway to resistance that is a threat to human health?

I think there is. There have been a number of studies that show that when you give antibiotics to animals, especially to animals that we then eat, there are antibiotics that get into their systems that can develop resistance, and then when we eat the food, we can be exposed to those resistant organisms.

We also know that if antibiotics are used in animal feed that they can end up in animal waste, so we can end up with antibiotics in our water supplies, and it’s that type of low-level presence of antibiotics that can also lead to issues with resistance.

Do you think we have enough data to know what’s happening with the antibiotics used on the farm?

I think we know enough to say that we need to be doing a better job of improving appropriate use of antibiotics in all sectors, humans and animals.

But the agriculture sector is different, because antibiotics have been used there for a long time with an eye toward improving the growth of the animals, really for food purposes, to make them bigger and fatter with less food. Does that concern you as a use?

Certainly the CDC believes quite firmly, and I think there are a number of veterinary experts here and in other places who agree with the stance that we should never be using antibiotics in agriculture or in people for any other purpose than to treat infections.

Using antibiotics to promote growth in animals is not a good use of antibiotics. It’s not careful use of this really delicate and invaluable resource.

Check out How Using Antibiotics In Animal Feed Creates Superbugs for some more deets.

It’s amazing how I tie everything back to “you should be a vegetarian”. It reminds me of the standup Jerry Seinfeld does in The Shower Head:

“Yeah, I got some family backstage. Course my family’s nuts; they’re crazy. Yep. My uncle Leo, I had lunch with him the other day, he’s one of these guys that anything goes wrong in life, he blames it on anti-Semitism. You know what I mean, the spaghetti’s not al dente? Cook’s an anti-Semite. Loses a bet on a horse. Secretariat? Anti-Semitic. Doesn’t get a good seat at the temple. Rabbi? Anti-Semite.”

Hopefully mine’s not quite as irrational …


Shifting Paradigms

30 Jan

Paradigm is a short word that has the intimidation factor of a much longer word. It’s one of those that we know the meaning of, but can’t put into words particularly well. So let’s start with getting on the same page with the meaning, I’m going for the third entry in Websters:

a philosophical and theoretical framework of a scientific school or discipline within which theories, laws, and generalizations and the experiments performed in support of them are formulated; broadly : a philosophical or theoretical framework of any kind

A cognitive framework if you will. A way of thinking. This gained meaning for me in a class at Stanford called Programming Paradigms. Simply put, there are many different ways to achieve a desired outcome in programming. There are different ways to think about how to approach solving the problem. This is why different programming languages are useful – they can enable these different ways of thinking. Everything is an object. Or everything is a list.

Paradigms certainly aren’t limited to programming however. I think they should be more widely used in our every day lives. The right mindset has the potential to offer a better solution to our problems, but more importantly having the flexibility to shift paradigms gives us the ability to empathize. If you are unable to shift your perspective, you will never truly understand how someone believes what they do.

Thought exercises should be a part of our education to promote an open minded population. Simply having an open minded population would solve so many of our problems. The goal for these exercises is to keep an open mind for a set period of time, not to ultimately believe it.

Here are some mind blowing thoughts to try out:

  • The world is a computer simulation, as explored in the Matrix. You and your independent decisions are really just a program that is able to learn and grow. Scientifically there could be some validity to this. The laws of physics break down at the smallest margins. Any simulation has a limit to how many calculations can be made, and the result would look like what physicists have observed. What would this mean? Would this change anything?
  • Democrats’ willingness for the government to help the poor and less fortunate are selfishly unloading the job on someone else so that they personally don’t have to do it and don’t feel guilty. What pieces of evidence can be used to support this? How do personal feelings get in the way?
  • That money has no real meaning. It has value because we all agree that it does, but if that were to change, what would happen? If only a handful of people realized this, what would change? Would those people be better or worse off?
  • 1984 and the Hunger Games feature worlds that appear completely unrealistic. But if one of those societies is the ending point, and today’s society is the beginning, what would the path look like to get there? Have we already started on that path? Can you defend that argument?
  • There is a limit to how many people the earth can support – one day that limit will be hit and the leaders of the world will realize it. The days of parents deciding how many children they want to have are limited. What will the warning signs of this limit look like? How far past the limit will we blow past until it gets to the point of controlling births? How will it feel having this aspect of your life controlled?


Hopefully at least one of those blew your mind. If I were in charge of education, how would I implement these thought exercises? Introduce these ideas and form small groups to explore them. Then have each person come up with a 2-3 minute argument supporting the case. Basically everyone practices defending the pro side of a radical argument. Someday it will be important to understand why the crazies believe what they do.


If You’re Not Taking Risks You’re Letting Time Pass

21 Nov

I like to occasionally examine my comfort in life in different areas, especially socially and professionally. And it’s not because I want to make sure I’m nice and comfy – quite the opposite. If I’m not pushing my comfort zone in these areas then I’m not growing. If I’m not growing then I’m content with mediocrity. If I’m content with mediocrity then I’m letting time pass and simply waiting out my days left on this planet.


New Zealand is full of some serious hiking and with serious hikes come seriously long conversations. On day 4 of 5 at Abel Tasman Tom, Jess, and I were ranking our favorite years at Stanford. This was very hard considering we had more fun than is legal. Seriously, some of the stuff was illegal. By examining my 4 years, there was one that comparatively stood out as the worst – my sophomore year. The year before I had established my friends and gotten to know my team and fraternity. And then I comparatively coasted socially through sophomore year, not branching out as much, sticking more to my comfort zone.

I’m not the most outgoing person in the world, but I’ve come to realize that it makes me happy to make new friends. Even though I love my current friends and it might be uncomfortable, I know that I am much happier when I push my comfort zone socially.


Professionally it is also extremely important to constantly learn new things and take risks. If you’re not innovating then someone else is. If you’re not learning new skills and making yourself replaceable in your current role, someone else will. There’s no such thing as staying in the same place. If you’re not advancing those around you are, meaning you’re going backwards.

Two years ago in NYC I shared a cab with a guy from the hotel all the way out to the airport. In rush hour. It took almost 2 hours to get there so I got to know the guy pretty well (and unfortunately can no longer claim I’ve never missed a flight). His career advice: get fired at least once. This wasn’t coming from a slacker – dude knew what’s up. His reasoning: you have to pursue your ideas with gusto in order to make it to the top. You might get fired for having ideas that clash with management or taking too big of risks. So be it. There will be another company that will value the mistakes of action of a young go-getter.

I suppose the guy in the cab took this principle to the extreme. Taking risks is good, pushing the comfort zone is great. But let’s not get too crazy about it! The best way I’ve found to look at it – how comfortable am I? Am I being challenged?

Other areas this applies: physically, financially. More?